Like any 20-something living far from home, with few emotional attachments, occasionally I feel the urge to do something domestic. I’m not thinking of having kids any time soon, and getting a dog or cat seems irresponsible. Then, the perfect solution appeared on my Facebook feed: Adopt an endangered plant from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) Botanical Garden.
The Botanical Garden is located at the Biology Institute at the UNAM campus in Coyoacán, Mexico City. It is a relaxing respite from the city, where young couples lounge in the shade of the arboretum and joggers pass through on their afternoon runs. The garden covers 32 acres, 7.4 of which are open to the public.
The garden has 1,600 species in its collections, including 300 that are threatened or in danger of extinction. Official Law 059 governs endangered species in Mexico under four different categories: “Most likely extinct in the wild,” “At risk of extinction,” “Threatened” and “Subject to special protection.” Overall, 945 plant species are threatened or at risk of extinction in Mexico.
The National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio) monitors biodiversity in Mexico and works with other government entities like the National Commission on Protected Natural Areas (Conanp). While historically mass extinctions have occurred due to climatic changes, volcano eruptions and floods, today the majority of extinctions are due to direct or indirect human impacts.
Biologist Enrique Lozada, director of the Adoption Center for Mexican Plants in Danger of Extinction at the Botanical Garden, says the initiative was founded October 8, 2013, “As a means to involve Mexican society in the important task of conserving Mexico’s diverse vegetation.”
Most specimen available at the Adoption Center are from three plant sub-families: Agavoideae, Cacti and Crassulaceans. Many members of these subfamilies are succulent plants, which have thickened or fleshy parts in order to store water to survive in dry climates. Emblematic Mexican plants such as agave, which is used to make mezcal, pulque and other local alcohols, are succulents, adapted to heat, high altitudes and low rainfall.
The Botanical Garden has in its collections specimen from 48 percent of endangered Mexican Agavoideae. These are dry desert plants such as agave, yucca and the Joshua tree. The garden has specimen from 58 percent of endangered Mexican cacti and 100 percent of endangered crassulacean, the sub-family that includes sedum and jade plants.
The Botanical Garden aims not just to conserve but has also cultivated more than 200 species of cacti, crassulacean and orchids through both conventional methods and tissue culture cloning.
Since 2013, 15,000 plants have been adopted by more than 12,000 adoptive parents from different parts of the country. Lozada says, “This initiative promotes the legal sale of vegetation in Mexico and involves society in the work of conserving biodiversity in Mexico, which is a mega-diverse country.”
The causes of plant extinction in Mexico are under-researched but include over-harvesting, habit loss and fragmentation. Many endemic plants, those that do not grow outside of Mexico, have very small habitat ranges, so urbanization and other changes in land use, or even natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, can rapidly impact an entire species.
Cacti and orchids are particularly prone to extinction due to their popularity as ornamental plants. They are often harvested from the wild for sale, without being replaced.
The cactus “biznaga del pedregal de San Ángel” (Mammillaria haageana san-angelensis) is an endangered endemic cactus that only grows on the UNAM campus. It is available for adoption at the center and Lozada says it is one of the most popular species.
I became the proud adoptive mother of a Graptopetalum macdougallii which is a crassulacean native to Oaxaca. Its common name is “Conchita.” Graptopetalum macdougallii is a popular Christmas decoration for its pleasant appearance and fast-growth but is at risk of extinction due to loss of habitat and over-exploitation.
My adoption certificate includes instructions to care for Conchita, which can live up to 15 years and reaches a maximum height of 10 centimeters.
The Botanical Garden is on Tercer Circuito exterior on the UNAM campus. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays during the summer, and closes one hour earlier during winter months. The Adoption Center is inside the Tienda Tigridia and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Admission is free. More information is available on the Garden’s website or by emailing [email protected]
The plants are available for adoption with a small fee that goes towards the Garden’s conservation efforts.